Corpse Brides and Forced Abortions: How China's One-Child Policy Is Still Ruining Lives

By Camille Standen


Nie Lina arrested for being pregnant (Image: All Girls Allowed)

In China, women are the runt of society's litter. You probably already know about the one-child policy that has had families actively sidelining the fairer sex for years—a millennias-old preference for sons in Chinese society means that, if couples can only afford one child given the financial penalties for multiple kids, they tend to go for boys rather than girls. Predictions state that there will be between 30 to 40 million fewer women than men in China by 2020, which sounds like it'll be a pretty lonely year for many in the People's Republic.

The terrible male-to-female ratio in China has caused people to resort to desperate measures. There has been a rise in child-bride trafficking from both within and outside the country. Other parents have been so intent on their sons getting married that they have resorted to fixing up "ghost marriages," where female corpses are dug up and reburied next to deceased bachelors so they can have a bride in the afterlife. Which I guess is a consequence you don't normally have to consider when you're drawing up social policy.

A couple of weeks ago, it was announced that the organization in charge of the one-child policy—the National Population and National Family Commission—will be merged with the Ministry of Health. This could prompt positive changes to the system, since corrupt family-planning officials will no longer be administering the punishments that have seen families charged up to six times their annual income for spawning multiple offspring. However, there are potential dangers too, most obviously in the fact that officials will be stationed in hospitals and health wards, which could deter women without birth permits (yep, birth permits) from seeking care and proper labor assistance.


Ma Jihong as her family found her, lying in an empty hospital (Image: Ma’s family).

This invasive method of population control—the answer to the legacy of overpopulation left behind by Mao Zedong—has created a long list of horrors that, besides child trafficking, includes infanticide, gendercide, infant abandonment, and forced abortions, all used by families desperate to meet the set child quotas. In 2009 it was reported that Chinese women account for 56 percent of all female suicides in the world. While it's never easy or even advisable to attempt to pinpoint the cause of suicide, you've got to feel like a government that limits women's access to motherhood and a society that treats them as second-class citizens may have something to do with how high that number is.

In June 2012, a Chinese woman named Feng Jianmei was seven months pregnant. Feng and her husband—both rural farmers—were unable to afford the $6,300 fine for having a second child, so she was carried into a van by policy officials and taken to a hospital. Her eyes were covered while they forced her to sign documents. Five men stood in the room as she was injected with a chemical agent that causes abortions. Feng's story is not uncommon. The only rarity is that it was widely reported in the international news because a photograph of her and the stillborn baby lying in a hospital bed started flying around the internet (NSFW photo). While the world reacted with outrage, within her county, Feng and her husband Deng Jiyuan were scorned. In their hometown, protesters were led through the streets by the government and hung banners on a bridge that read, "Beat the traitors, drive them from the town."

Deng Jiyuan was forced into hiding after being threatened by hired thugs and officials for wanting to spread his family's story; Feng wasn't allowed to leave the hospital the entire time she was there. When they took their case to court, the family was eventually given $11,200 as compensation.

Another incident took place last month, when a 13-month-old boy, born without a birth permit, was run over by a minibus driven by a government official. Eleven (ELEVEN) officials had turned up in the minibus with the intention of persuading the parents to pay the toll for their third kid, but apparently a grappling match ensued in which the child was dropped to the ground before being killed by the vehicle. While the government was quick to label this as an accident, thousands of Wenzhou city residents flocked to local government offices in protest.


Family-planning officials detain Zhong Xuexiang on January 21 (Image: Zong Xuexiang).

Kat Lewis, who works for the forced-abortion aid group All Girls Allowed, explained the situation in more detail to me. "There's so much shame in China surrounding the exposure of injustices. A majority of women in China will have more than one abortion. Contraception isn't very common in rural areas because the government actually receives more money when families get pregnant and have to pay fines for extra children. Or the government performs an abortion and will sometimes even charge a woman a fee for it to be carried out and for the disposal of fetal remains."

Kat went on to tell me about what's been happening to Feng's family away from the media limelight. "The government told her husband that if he spoke to the media, he'd be fired from his work. They also told the family that, of the $11,200 compensation settlement, half of it would have to be earned by the husband through work for the government."

Another part of the policy that's been underreported, according to Kat, is the regular vaginal exams of women in rural areas. "It's invasive and involuntary, if they don't submit to the check, then they are disciplined," she told me. "If they're found to be pregnant, then they're threatened with fines and job loss if they don't agree to an abortion. A woman named Mei Shunping testified (under the pseudonym Liu Ping) that she was forced to undergo five abortions, three of which were from the routine checks and two occurred when she was reported by co-workers because they were threatened with collective punishment when a woman was found to be pregnant."


Ms. Cao Ruyi in the hospital where she was held against her will (Image: NTDTV).

Despite Mei telling the congressional hearing back in 2011 that "the day of my fifth and last abortion... was the saddest of my life," some local governments announced last year that they would be expanding these pregnancy checks. Apple factories in China were recently exposed to be carrying out the tests too, but while media exposure might not seem like it's helping much at the moment, it's difficult to see any other way of making the situation better for Chinese women. Feng Jianmei only received a response from the government because her story was in the public eye, and social media has been a strong driving factor for justice because it's harder for the Chinese population to accept the state's version of reality when they're faced with contrary first-hand information.

In another case—that of Cao Ruyi—the husband immediately spread the word about the officials' plans for a forced abortion and sparked an emergency outcry that managed to save the child's life. But with some sources estimating that 10 million state-enforced abortions take place every year in China, it's clear that the odd Twitter campaign isn't going to be enough in the long-term.

Follow Camille on Twitter: @CamStanden

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